Wellington, August 29, 2020
The World Health Organisation has been telling us for most of this year that the key to getting on top of the Covid-19 pandemic is constant and thorough testing of any and all potential at risk patients.
Yet, in spite of managing many other aspects of Covid-19 well, New Zealand still seems to be having difficulty with its testing regime, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to get clear and consistent answers from those responsible about what is happening and why it is so.
We know that after a slow start testing levels in the general community and in managed isolation and quarantine facilities are picking up, in part due to a concentrated focus on border control and our approach to managed isolation and quarantine; in part because of the recent community outbreak in Auckland; and, in part because of continued calls from epidemiological experts for a greater focus being placed on testing. That is good, and to be encouraged.
But the official message is not always as definite as it should be.
For example, the Director General of Health keeps urging people to submit to a test if they feel they should, while in the next breath saying that to ease pressure on the system, only people showing clear symptoms of the virus should seek to be tested.
Such mixed messaging is hardly conducive to encouraging people who feel they should, to go for a Covid-19 test. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and the Health Minister keep giving assurances about the availability of testing opportunities that are just not being borne out by the reality of what is happening.
We have been assured that everyone entering managed isolation or quarantine is subject to testing on days 3 and 12 of their isolation. That seems a reasonable position, yet the Minister of Health told Parliament earlier this week that the day 3 test was not mandatory.
This was despite earlier assurances from the Director General in early June that “from today, everyone in managed isolation will be tested twice for Covid-19.”
Indeed, as Newshub has revealed, it now appears thousands of persons in isolation and quarantine have not been subject to day three tests, even though it has been the day three tests that have revealed the majority of positive cases.
We all know of the delays there have been in testing those border control and other personnel involved in managing the isolation and quarantine process.
Belatedly, in just the last couple of weeks the Cabinet decided that all such personnel should be routinely tested. But, as Radio New Zealand revealed earlier this week, the new border testing regime has only just been finalised and is still at least a fortnight away from being put in place.
This is despite assurances from the Prime Minister over six weeks ago in early July that “frontline workers at the border” were “getting regularly tested,” and Cabinet having ordered at the end of July that testing for all border and isolation personnel be mandatory.
The harsh reality
The question that arises from all these inconsistencies is where does the truth lie? On the face of it, it appears the public has been spun a line by senior Ministers and officials that they now are admitting has not been borne out by reality.
What is not so clear is whether there has been a deliberate policy of obfuscation initiated at the highest levels to overcome the shortcomings that have become apparent, and reassure the public that all has been well; or, whether the fault lies with inadequate and inaccurate information about what actually has been happening in the testing space being reported to those in control.
Either way, it is a poor although not unexpected reflection on the Minister of Health’s supervision, and the role of the Minister of Managed Isolation, Megan Woods.
Minister Chris Hipkins is simply over-burdened, already serving as Leader of the House, Minister of Education and Minister of State Services.
It is sadly now clear that he just does not have the time to do justice to the Health portfolio and the extraordinary demands dealing with Covid-19 has imposed, as well. And, after a promising and energetic start, Minister Woods seems to have run out of steam, so much so that she has almost disappeared from public view. The consequence has been that the integrity of the testing system, so much at the heart of our Covid-19 response, has been severely compromised, leading to the establishment of a new, separate task force to review what has been going on at the border and with the testing process.
The Prime Minister has correctly made clear her disdain for New Zealand yo-yoing in and out of lockdowns every time there is an outbreak of community transmission.
Short of acquiescing to the virus being a fixture in the community, something that she has thankfully never advocated or had on her agenda, the major response tool left open to the country in the absence of a vaccine has to be a credible testing regime at the border and in the community to identify outbreaks of the virus as they occur, backed up by robust isolation and quarantine regimes for those identified with the virus.
The blunt reality is that despite the herculean efforts of those involved in conducting and processing tests, and those managing the isolation and quarantine systems, our Covid-19 testing regime is currently the weak link in our response chain, at the very time we need it to be at its strongest and most emphatic.
Ministers’ simple and overriding responsibility now is to make the testing system work, and to stop the spin and prevarication.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.